Suburban society, American culture and economics all play a role in the growing number of overweight and obese Delaware residents.
Delawareans have been putting on pounds at a steady pace over the past few years and today, following a national trend, the majority of the First State’s residents are overweight.
Obesity is fast becoming a statewide epidemic and our suburban society has a lot to do with it, said Marianne Carter, director of the Delaware Center for Health Promotion.
Most suburbanites don’t get enough exercise, she said. Riding lawnmowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers are common sights in garages across Delaware, making manual yard work and its calorie-burning benefits a thing of the past.
“Our society has evolved into one where convenience is everywhere,” she said.
Add to that, much of the state’s labor force works jobs that are primarily sedentary, and it’s no wonder Delawareans don’t exercise enough, she said.
If a person works behind a desk, they will be 25 pounds heavier than if they had a job that required daily physical activity, according to Eric Finkelstein, an economist at the nonprofit research institute RTI International.
“We’ve seen such dramatic changes in technology that accidental exercise, which is the exercise you get just by going about your day, is largely nonexistent,” he said.
Some recent studies suggest adults should walk 10,000 steps a day to maintain a healthy weight, Finkelstein said, but sedentary workers take so few steps during the day they would need to walk an extra 25 miles a week to meet that recommendation.
It can be especially difficult for Delawareans to walk anywhere because of the way suburbia is designed, said Carter.
Many neighborhoods do not have sidewalks and most are not within walking distance of stores, libraries, community centers or other buildings residents visit regularly, she said.
Time management also contributes to a sedentary lifestyle, she said, because many families are so busy with activities they don’t even have time to go for a walk.
Then, like a domino effect, because we live in such a busy world, our reliance on restaurants has increased dramatically, Finkelstein said, and today, an average family spends 40 percent of its food budget on meals purchased outside the home. Fast food makes up a large portion of that percentage because of the convenient allure of the drive through and the high number of fast food restaurants, he said.
There are more than 30 McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s franchises within a 10-mile radius of Hockessin.
“French fries are the number one vegetable consumed in the American diet,” Finkelstein said.
Fast food is notoriously high in calories, Carter said, and people also tend to eat more food when they eat out. We are encouraged to “supersize” our meals and, in some restaurants, portion sizes have become obscene, she said.
Men eat almost 200 more calories a day than they did 25 years ago and women eat more than 300 more calories a day, Finkelstein said, and the economics of food have a lot to do with it.
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree
Food advertising has also played a role in our consumption, she said, and commercials for soft drinks and unhealthy snacks tend to appeal to children.
The marketing is working.
Kids consume twice the daily recommended amount of sugar, Finkelstein said, and an average child drinks 62 gallons of soda each year.
“There is not a child who can’t recognize the golden arches,” Carter said. “If we, as a nation, are trying to be healthy, we need to do something about that.”
Children's lives mirror their parents': they also have more opportunities to be sedentary than ever before, she said, and many kids don’t have time to exercise because they are busy with schoolwork and other activities, and some neighborhoods lack safe areas for kids to play.
Their trend toward obesity is also beginning to mirror their parents': 36 percent of Delaware kids are overweight or obese, according to Nemours & Prevention Services.
Penny wise and pound foolish
While nominal food prices dropped 38 percent between 1978 and 2005, the most dramatic drop was in soft drinks, sweets and fatty snacks, he said. During that same period, the number of households owning a microwave increased by 87 percent, making convenient, calorie-dense foods within reach of practically everyone, he said.
While the sticker price of fatty food may be lower than healthy items like fresh fruits and vegetables, there are more costs to consider than dollars and cents, Carter said.
Milk costs more than soda, but milk is also more valuable for the body than soda, so it is impossible to compare healthy and unhealthy foods based only on price, she said.
Eating an unhealthy diet can be very expensive in the long run, she said. Delawareans spend about $207 million a year on healthcare costs related to obesity, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Nationally, a 2008 Conference Board report found that obesity is associated with a 36 percent increase in spending on healthcare services, more than smoking or problem drinking, and that obesity costs the private sector a super-sized $45 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity.
In another report that examined national numbers from multiple organizations, overweight and obesity costs were estimated to cost the U.S a whopping $117 billion (Direct cost, $61 billion. Indirect cost, $56 billion). Some of the biggest ticket items were: Type II diabetes, at $98 billion; osteoarthritis related to obesity, at $21.2 billion, and lost productivity, at $3.9 billion.
-Workdays lost: 39.3 million
-Physician office visits: 62.7 million
-Restricted activity days: 239.0 million
-Bed-days: 89.5 million
The study estimated that the direct costs of physical inactivity alone were more than $24 billion.
Plus, Americans spend $35 billion each year on weight loss products, but we have been gaining weight steadily for decades.
Taking a bite out of obesity
Of greater concern than the monetary cost, obesity is a serious health concern for kids and adults, because it could cost people their health: it is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes, Carter said.
But we can slim down, she said.
People need to make their health a personal priority and employers, insurance companies, school districts and governments must do their part to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles, she said.
The Delaware Center for Health Promotion maintains a Web site, www.behealthydelaware.org, with information and resources for First State residents trying to be healthy and fight obesity.
The growing obesity epidemic in Delaware is far too important to ignore, Carter said.